Restorative Justice and the Power of Confession

We live in a deeply divided country. There are divides that cut across racial, political, and socioeconomic lines. These divides are the stories and headlines we see daily on the news all around the country.

Headlines like the ones that have come from Ferguson, Missouri following the tragic shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Daren Wilson earlier this year further serve to divide us. Stories like these captivate, motivate, and sometimes infuriate us. They exacerbate social tension as people from all sides of this complicated issue demand “justice.”

What has happened in Ferguson is not unique. The story could just as well play out in Washington, D.C., New York City, or Gary, Indiana. Ferguson is simply the most recent embodiment of the broader divisions that continue to hold our country hostage.

The things that divide us and the injustices they highlight are not new. However, in a world constantly connected they become more apparent to us. They become harder to ignore. It is easy to sign an online petition and to feel as though you’ve done your part by fighting injustice from a safe distance. But to change and to reform systemic injustice, and to heal the divides that are destroying our country, it’s going to require you to move beyond a safe distance.

[ut_blockquote_left] We need leaders who are willing to get close to injustice and to courageously expose that injustice. We also need leaders who are willing to be champions of the healing and reconciliation process that must follow. [/ut_blockquote_left]

Photo credit: Nina Subin/Courtesy of Random House

Bryan Stevenson is one of those leaders. He has been interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air, The Colbert Report, and he has spoken from the TED stage. In his new memoir, Just Mercy, he tells the story of growing up in a poor and racially segregated area in Delaware, to graduating from Harvard Law School and becoming a public defender. Years later he would found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). His own experiences of racial bias and injustice inspired him to fight and to become a voice  for equal justice for his clients and those marginalized by society.

The Equal Justice Initiative serves clients who are often abused, as well as neglected children serving death sentences after being convicted as adults. They even serve mentally challenged defendants whose illnesses contributed to their convictions, but not to their defense. EJI’s mission is to serve those individuals our society has rejected, segregated, and even demonized.

Restorative justice lies at the very heart of Stevenson’s work. He believes we haven’t been truthful about the wounds our country still carries from slavery and the years of terror that followed. He says, “We are too celebratory of Civil Rights….You can’t segregate and humiliate people decade after decade without creating long-lasting injuries.”

His work attempts to expose the wounds that have led to the bias and injustice that plague our system. We operate in a system of retributive justice where punishment equals justice. Stevenson tells of the injustice that allows our system to try a thirteen year old child as an adult and sentence them to death. That is not justice. That is retribution. Punishment and retribution do not bring healing. Studies show that threat and punishment are the least effective forms of social change. Stevenson would say, “We have elevated finality over fairness.”

Richard Rohr, author of “Breathing Underwater“, also discusses the idea of restorative justice through a biblical perspective and the practicality of the Twelve Steps. In his chapter discussing the Fifth Step he says, “It is not about punishing one side, but liberating both sides.”

He uses Desmond Tutu’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” as the paradigm for how the practice of public confession can bring about healing after the devastation of societal sin like that of Apartheid in South Africa or slavery here in the United States. The purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was for everyone to take public responsibility for their mistakes, not for the sake of punishment, but for the sake of truth and healing. Rohr says, “In fact, the healing was the baring – and the bearing – of the truth publicly.”

“Forgiveness is to let go of our hope for a different or better past.”

We cannot change our history. We cannot erase the wounds that have scarred us so deeply. But for us to address the injustice in our systems and to truly have equality among all people, we have to begin the process of healing and restoration. We, as a nation, must first acknowledge the hurts and wounds that exist. In acknowledging and taking responsibility for our mistakes, misunderstandings, and prejudices we can start the process of learning to forgive.

How do we begin that healing in our nation?

It begins with leaders like Bryan Stevenson and Desmond Tutu who are willing to expose us to truth and challenge us to lay bare our sins both personal and societal. In the book Breathing Underwater, Richard Rohr walks through each of the Twelve Steps. There are four steps before we get to the fifth step of confession. The process is essential. In AA they use sponsors, leaders who have been through all the steps and know how to lead others through and help them overcome the challenges each step brings.

Rohr says at the end of chapter five, “Nothing new happens without apology and forgiveness. It is the divine technology for the regeneration of every age and every situation. The ‘unbound’ ones are best prepared to unbind the rest of the world.”

Our nation has an addiction to punitive justice. We need sponsors, symphonic leaders who are able to take the myriad pieces of our nation and story and harmoniously bring them together; courageous  leaders who are “unbound”–leaders like Bryan Stevenson and Desmond Tutu who can compassionately expose us to truth.

Author: Brianne Dornbush